Good Questions

Writing got much easier for me when I accepted that my job was to ask questions and let my imagination bring me the answers. Sometimes my question was, “Why does the witch want to capture my hero?” or “What job does my protagonist really want?” But just as often they were questions like “How do I know I have free will?” or “What if happiness is our natural state of being?”

Every question I ever asked was answered, though it wasn’t always answered immediately. Or, more often, I wasn’t immediately ready for the answer. No matter; when I was ready I heard it, and if it was a really good question, the answer usually led to more questions. Questions are more interesting than answers. I have to remind myself of this often, because I spend a lot of time thinking all my worry would be over if I could rest in the surety of a firm conclusion. In fact, life is never duller, never less meaningful, than when I don’t have a question to ask.

Fortunately, life itself is always creating questions for us. This is good news for writers. I have had the pleasure of working with a number of clients recently whose lives have compelled them to ask fantastic questions. However, the means by which life helped them to ask these questions is what we normally call “trauma.” Like all people, the writers are tempted to believe their lives now would be better if only they could scrub their past clean of those traumatic events.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Life compelled these writers, usually at a very young age, to ask, “What is intimacy?” or “What is real strength?” or “What is unconditional love?” Once the question was asked, the answer started coming, but they were not ready to hear it, usually because they did not even know they’d asked it. So they start writing, where they could ask smaller questions on purpose, the answers trickling down to them in poems and essays and novels until gradually the answer that had been knocking and knocking on the door to their consciousness is allowed in.

I don’t want to suffer any more than you do. I want my days to go as effortlessly and undisturbed as a perfect Sunday picnic. But when I find myself wondering, “What the hell is going on?” or “What’s the point?” or “Why am I here?” I have not reached the end of my happiness. I’ve found again life’s interesting path.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Know Your Job

Up until the end of his fourth grade in school, getting my eldest son Max to do his homework was an exhausting exercise in parenting gymnastics. My wife invented games and songs and stories to make his work seem as friendly as possible. We created rules and rewards. We took his Gameboy away and we gave his Gameboy back. None of it worked. Every night was a competition between what he needed to do for school and what he wanted to do for himself.

One night I helped him write a report on John Adams. There was the blank page. His page was exactly as blank as mine when I sat at my desk every morning. Only he could fill it. I offered him prompts. I asked him questions about John Adams. I even suggested outlining his one page paper. By the end, I did everything but stick the pen between his fingers and move pen and fist across the page.

Then, one evening, Max took his homework into his room and did it without our assistance. When my wife asked if he needed help, he shooed her away. That was that. He eventually told us that he came to understand that school was a game he needed to play if he wanted to do certain things later in life. Now he and school were aligned, and we were no longer necessary.

Sometimes when I am trying very hard to write a book, I feel as if I am back in Max’s bedroom working on that John Adams paper. No matter how creative I was, no matter how supportive I was, I couldn’t do Max’s job. Likewise with the stories I would like to tell. My job is to be curious and open and keep asking questions; my imagination’s job is to do every thing else. I’ve tried to do both jobs and I am left feeling like a failure. No wonder. I’ve given myself an impossible task.

But when I remember my job and how simple it is, I feel like a success again. I know how to be curious, I know how to be open, and I know how to ask questions. That’s easy. In fact, it’s so easy I have to remind myself every day what my job is and what my job isn’t. And when our work is done, and if I have been disciplined about doing only my job, I leave my desk aligned with an ambition that knows only success.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Learning From What We Already Know

One of the biggest differences between the established writers I know and many of the writers I teach or work with as clients is that the established writers don’t worry that much about what they don’t yet know. The beginning writers, meanwhile, worry constantly about what they don’t know, believing it is symptomatic of some shortcoming. A better writer, a smarter writer, a more talented writer, would not be so hamstrung by this swarm of unanswered questions that are keeping the new writers up at night.

In these writers’ defense, there’s an awful lot you start out not knowing, whether you’re writing a book, or selling a book, or marketing a book you’ve sold. Books themselves begin as the smallest of ideas: A lonely guy spots a young woman at a coffee shop; a serial killer visits a shopping mall; a girl pirate. From these small but fertile seeds grow the tree that is a complete story, full of characters, settings, plots and subplots, none of which the author knew when the idea first arrived. All the author knew was that she wanted to tell this story.

And yet that seed of an idea was enough. Now the author has a book. But how will she sell it? She doesn’t know which agent wants it, or which publisher, or which readers. Where to go next? I have learned that the answer to every such question always resides in exactly the same place. Without exception, what I already know teaches me what I need to know.

If I know I want to write about a girl pirate, then that knowledge – which I also call interest or excitement – will teach me, show me, guide me to what I need to know. It will teach me how to write and to how to sell it and how to market it. My job is always to focus on why I know the story is worth telling and worth sharing and from there discover the next step.

But if I move my attention to what I don’t yet know, if I dwell on the ending I haven’t found, or the agent I don’t have, I will feel as lost a student arriving to class without having read the previous day’s assignment. It is the very embodiment of insecurity, believing I am required to know what I don’t. It’s like trying to build a house without hammer or nails.

This insecurity is a failing only of trust, not intelligence or ability. It is hard to believe sometimes that from something so small as an interesting idea can grow something so big a book or a career. Yet it can. What’s more, on a good day I remember how lucky I am not to know something I would like to know. All these questions I haven’t answered become delicious excuses to return to what I know I interests me, to what I know I want spend more time thinking about writing and talking about. What I don’t know sends me back to the source, and the tree keeps growing and growing.

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Curiosity: The Path to Finding Your Voice

Learning the craft of writing is one thing. There are lots of classes and books that can help you understand both the fundamentals and the nuance of story, dialogue, character, and description. If you don’t like books and classes, you can also just write as much as you can and you will eventually learn that dialogue is most provocative when characters don’t say exactly what they mean, and that nouns and verbs are the bones and muscles of all descriptive writing.

Learning about voice, however, is another thing altogether. For a writer, finding what we have come to call our voice is ultimately more important than learning how to tighten a sagging middle or create believable characters. Until you have found your voice, no matter how diligently you study craft, writing will remain frustratingly unknowable, the blank page a moving target you come to fear and resent.

Yet as a writing instructor, I cannot train your voice the way a singing instructor could help you train your voice. All I can do is remind you that you have one. It’s true. That is because your voice is what interests you most. That’s it. Your voice is not a product of clever word choice, or an expansive vocabulary, or a willingness to take bold stylistic chances. Your voice is your unique interest authentically expressed, unencumbered by any thought of what anyone else thinks is interesting.

Which is why “finding your voice” has very little to do with writing and everything to do with simply being human. Everyone has to find their voice, whether they love to write, cook, garden, or play hopscotch. It is both the simplest thing and the most difficult thing. It is the simplest thing because nothing is easier, more natural, and requires less effort than laying your attention on that to which your curiosity is inherently drawn. It is as natural as eating what you find delicious or laughing at what you find funny.

But it can be the most difficult thing, because to follow your curiosity without apology or restraint means accepting that you and you alone can answer the question, “What is a good life?” To follow your curiosity you cannot worry about fitting in, or sounding smart, or doing the “right thing.” You also cannot worry about success and failure. To follow your curiosity with abandon is to accept that you will learn what your success looks like, and that it will look different than anyone else’s.

Humans love to tell each other what to do. We love to tell each other how to behave, and whom to vote for, and what to eat, and what to read, and which songs to listen to, and when and how and if we should pray. Sometimes we even punish people when they don’t do what we believe they should do. As writer, you have probably been punished at some point in your life for writing the “wrong thing.” It is possible you perceive rejection as a kind of punishment for writing the wrong thing, or maybe writing the right thing in the wrong way.

The worst punishment I have ever known is trying to live someone else’s idea of a life, to write someone else’s idea of a story. That is constant suffering, for no matter how hard I try, everything I do feels wrong, and every path I follow leads to failure. Yet all the suffering and rejection and failure I have known in my life has merely served to guide me back to myself, back to my curiosity, whose unerring guidance I have always had the option to reject or accept.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Writing is the Opposite of Thinking

Writers often behave like smart people. When they’re not reading a lot of books, they’re sitting alone somewhere staring at a blank piece of paper or a computer screen or a wall. It is a very active kind of staring, meaning it looks like thinking, which is what smart people supposedly like to do most of all. Except writers really aren’t thinking – at least they shouldn’t be. If a writer is doing their job, when they aren’t typing or scribbling, they are listening.

The difference between thinking and creative listening can feel subtle, but in reality is as significant as the difference between sleeping and waking. I know I’m thinking when I’m rearranging, negotiating, or strategizing with what already exists. Whether I’m balancing my checkbook, learning how a new software application works, or planning a trip, I’m using my mind to assemble a puzzle whose pieces were created before I set to work on it.

Writing, on the other hand, always begins with a blank page. I mustn’t be fooled into believing I am thinking, simply because the words I use can all be found in dictionaries or that the hero’s journey provides the architecture for most stories. All the writing that has come before the story I would like to tell, all the writing books and writing classes, merely serve as a reminder that it is possible to create something out of nothing.

It’s easy to forget. You face that blank page and maybe you think how much simpler it would be if you just had some chess pieces to move about or a road map to follow. After all, when you leave your desk, the world you’ll roam is filled with stuff that’s already been made – television shows, and restaurants, and houses, and story upon story about all the things people have done and said. That’s reality! You’re a grown person. It’s your job to deal with reality. Kids can live easily enough in their fantasy worlds – even encourage it – but we adults must negotiate the world, and learn how things work, and make good decisions, and study the issues, and learn our history lest we repeat it.

But the blank page doesn’t care about any of that stuff that’s already been made. The blank page doesn’t want you to study or do the right thing or try to be a grown up. All the blank page wants to know is what you’re most interested in right now. What question is knocking loudest at the door to your imagination? Your job is to open the door for that question, and then ask it and ask it until you begin to hear some answers.

It’s only logical, after all. If I’m one the one asking a question like, “What should happen next in this story?” I can’t also be the one answering it. If I had the answer, why ask the question? I can’t concern myself with physical reality. I know I’m the only one in the room, but I’m listening all the same. I’m listening to what comes through the door I opened, listening so that what existed only in my desire and curiosity can join the reality we all share.

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Finding Your Readers

I was giving a reading once, talking about writing the way I like to – which is to say encouraging everyone just to do it and ignore all the noise about how hard it is to get published and the shrinking markets and rejections and snappy openings and so on – when a woman raised her hand and said, “This is such a relief.”

Which I share not to brag but because I had found a like soul. This column has been a relief to me. For years I worked against the current of a story that went thus: Writing and publishing are hard. You have to be lucky or talented or preferably both, and don’t forget it’s a business, and be original but make sure your work fits into a category, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I hated this story, but I believed it was reality.

The more I wrote while believing this story, however, the more I felt the mounting discomfort of working against what I secretly felt to be true and useful. The discomfort – which I sometimes called failure, or writers block, or a bad day’s work – was actually a form of asking. The discomfort was saying, “Not this. It isn’t working. Go find something better.” And so the discomfort grew and grew until at last I started a magazine and allowed myself to tell a different story, and in the answering of my own question the strain and weight of working against myself were relieved.

It is important as a writer to remember that out there in the reading wilderness are strangers looking for what you have written. I suppose this woman was. Whatever suffering had been relieved that night had been her asking. I am sure she did not recognize it as such. I am sure she called it a bitter pill of reality she must swallow if she wanted to pursue this dream. In this way, my answer was her answer, my relief was her relief, and my story was her story.

And that, I believe, is what we call finding your readers.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Making Time

I have always made time to write. Whether I was working as a waiter or a sales clerk, whether I was designing roleplaying adventures or booking and conducting interviews, I have always made time to write. This was not so difficult because I considered writing a pleasure and what I wanted most in the world was to do only things that pleased me. Making time to write often meant choosing writing over something that did not please me at all.

Yet I imposed a cost on myself for this choice. I called myself lazy. I believed I wasn’t responsible enough. I felt I should do a few more things that didn’t please me, which seemed like a more grown-up way to live. Children just did whatever they felt like, until they grew up and learned the unavoidable truth of surviving. There’s only so much time in the day, after all. If you spend it all just doing whatever you felt like, houses would never get built and groceries would never get bought.

Time’s a strange commodity. It expands and compresses with my attention. When I become happily lost within the dream of writing, the past and future loose their hold on my imagination, trained as it is in the present moment where creation can occur. When I awaken from this dream, it is like waking from a night’s sleep; it is as if I’d traveled five miles of time in a few steps.

When I am doing things that do not please me, I feel every second. I travel each one, step-by-step, measuring my way toward the end of this chore. Time is a measure, not in where I am, but only in my position relative to the end. I live in the future, in that imagined time when I might be happy again.

Time has never actually existed, but happiness and unhappiness have. In fact, they are all we really know. No one actually needs to find time to write. We need only answer this question: Is my life about doing what pleases me, or doing what I must? Which is actually more important? How I answer that question creates or destroys all time.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Doing Nothing

Writing is not thinking, it is active listening. When we are actively listening to another person, we are not just hearing their words. That is, I am not actively listening merely because I could recite back verbatim what someone else just said. Rather, just as a reader is not really reading unless he is bringing that book to life in his imagination, so too I am not actively listening unless I am brining the words of my conversational partner to life in my imagination – seeing in my mind the story he is telling and, most importantly, feeling the fear, joy, relief, or hope the story is trying to convey.

Writing is this same process in reverse. Whereas in conversation I focus on my partner’s words to allow the feelings they are trying to convey to bloom in my imagination, while writing I focus on the feeling I want to convey and allow my imagination to provide the scenes, sentences, and words that match those feelings. I am focused because the longer I keep my attention on the feeling, the easier it is for the imagination to provide what I am asking for.

Yet I am listening because I am not trying to provide the words myself. I am listening because I have asked a question: “How can I best describe that moment when I first saw Jen?” When I ask a guest on my show a question, I do not then answer it myself. So too with my writing. If I want to know how to describe that moment when I first saw Jen, I remember that moment, remember what it felt like, remember exactly what it felt like, and stay there within that feeling until the words arrive.

If I move my attention away from the feeling, the words will not come. If I doubt they will come, they will not come. If I am impatient, they will not come. If I believe a better writer would find better words, they will not come. They will only come when I stop thinking, and stop worrying, and stop doubting, and starting feeling and waiting and feeling and waiting. What a strange way to make a living. On my best days, it is as if I am being paid for doing nothing, which I suppose in a way is true.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

What You Have

Ninety percent of what you need to tell the story you most want to tell you already have. It does not matter if you are eight or eighty, you already have everything you need except that other ten percent, which we have come to call craft. Many writers are taught the exact opposite – that they are born with ten percent and learn the ninety. This is not surprising; humans are forever teaching each other that we have nothing until we acquire it.

Your imagination will provide you with every idea you will ever need. It is a ceaseless and loyal servant. Your desire to communicate summons this imagination and focuses it. The clearer your desire, the more useful the ideas your imagination provides. Nothing is required of you other than to train your attention steadily on what you desire to share with other people.

Nothing, that is, except trust. This is what most writers are really learning – not character development or strong verbs or showing and not telling. Do not underestimate how quickly you can halt the flow of ideas from your imagination. Trust is the open channel through which these ideas flow. To clamp this hose is to cut ourselves off from creation, from life’s source, and the pain that accumulates from this one choice grows commensurately acute.

Until released. There is a kind of ecstasy that accompanies the return to trust. It can be addictive in its own way, and the artist must resist the temptation to recreate this artificial pleasure. The artist must accept his pleasure as the constant flow of focused thought as he must also accept himself. You were not born a blank slate. You are not clay to be molded by time and circumstance and the sharp edges of experience. You are a conduit for creation itself, ninety percent light, and ten percent shadow so the world will have some form.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

One Question

Michael was by all measure the best student in my oldest son’s kindergarten. Thanks to some aggressive preschool tutoring, by age five he was already doing long division. By first grade, he had a wall of chess trophies in his bedroom. As my son explained to me one day, “Michael knows all the answers.”

All, it turns, except one.

I volunteered to be his class’s computer docent, which meant I was to help the kids learn how to use the computer they all appeared to have been born knowing how to use. So I decided to have them write a story together instead. I summoned the students one-by-one to the computer. The first student began the story (There’s a unicorn named Cherry and she’s at a park). I typed this up and then read it to the next student and asked, “What should happen next?” (Cherry climbs a tree and makes friends with a squirrel.) And so on. Student after student after student listened to the story and then told me what would happen next.

And then came Michael. I read him our story thus far, and asked, “So what should happen next?”

Michael looked back at me blankly. “I don’t know.”

Somehow I recognized the look in Michael’s eyes. He was fantastic at giving correct answers. He was also as sweet as you could want a boy to be. He wanted to do everything asked of him by adults as well as he could.

“It’s okay,” I said. “It can be anything at all. What do you want to have happen next?”

Michael just shook his head. “I don’t know.”

Michael would soon enter a school for gifted children, where I assume he thrived. But I will never forget that look in his young face. Life, it turns out, is not a game of Jeopardy! There remains no right answer to the question, “What I do want?” There are also no questions more important.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter